September 2, 2014, 12:21 PM

Language arts

Understanding and deploying the right technology is essential for web retailers ready to tackle multilingual content.

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Parlez-vous français? Deutsch? 中国? Those are questions some retailers are working to answer “yes” to as they extend sales to consumers in other countries.

While English is the de facto international language—roughly 25% to 30% of the world population can speak and read it—e-retailers looking to sell to consumers abroad are finding that when it comes to making a web purchase, consumers want the familiarity of their native tongue.  

HollandBoutique.com, a 2-year-old e-retailer that sells Dutch-made food products based near Amsterdam, learned that through trial and error. The e-retailer started with an English-language site, thinking most customers would be Dutch ex-pats living overseas seeking a taste of home, or English-speaking travelers who’d visited Holland and wanted to get their hands on products they’d tried while visiting. What owner Frans Buikema didn’t expect was that 40% of his customers would hail from China. One product line in particular, a Netherlands-made baby formula powder, gained traction with Chinese shoppers.

“There is huge demand from Chinese consumers,” Buikema says. He says the emerging Chinese middle class, especially those in smaller cities, want products that they can’t find in their local supermarkets. “For them, the world is their marketplace, and they like to shop anywhere in the world, so long as it is a rich country.”

That led Buikema to look at ways he could modify the English-language site to cater to Chinese consumers. That meant assessing the capabilities of his content management system and e-commerce platform to see if and how it could handle Chinese characters (they could, but crankily), enlisting translators (he used freelancers he found online) and figuring out Chinese shoppers’ preferences. Buikema estimates he spent $15,000 on a translated version of the site, which went live last fall; consumers coming from a Chinese IP address were automatically directed to the translated site, with the option to toggle between the Chinese and English site by clicking a flag icon on the page header.

But HollandBoutique.com went back to the drawing board just three months later after getting negative feedback from Chinese customers. The automatic redirect to the Chinese language site, for example, made Chinese consumers think they were shopping with a Chinese e-retailer, which deflated HollandBoutique’s cachet as a Western company. Buikema sums up the experience: “I made all the mistakes that you can possibly make.” 

The e-retailer will launch a new, separate .cn site this month on a different platform, with translated and localized content and which offers features in line with Chinese consumers’ expectations for web shopping, such as Alipay and UnionPay, two popular payment forms, and plenty of social media functionality for Chinese social networks like Weibo, WeChat and QQ. The site will strongly emphasize that products ship from the Netherlands because that is a key selling point for Chinese consumers, Buikema says.

HollandBoutique.com’s experience shows one tack web merchants use to tackle a non-native language, and the ongoing refinements translated sites require. E-retailers that have completed translation projects say e-retailers considering going multilingual need to carefully plan their moves, especially their technology requirements, and anticipate their new customers’ preferences and support needs.

E-retailers outside of North America are more likely to have multilingual content on their web sites, according to data on Internet Retailer’s Top500Guide.com. In 2013, 46 of the largest e-retailers in North America offered multilingual customer service options, compared to 131 European retailers and 80 Latin American e-retailers. But according to an Internet Retailer survey aimed at U.S. retailers from earlier this summer, 84.0% of U.S. retailers accept orders from beyond the United States, but more than half, 53.8%, said international sales represent less than 5% of revenue.

Those sales figures might improve if more content was in shoppers’ native languages, says Jon Ritzdorf, solutions architect for Moravia IT a.s., a Czech Republic-based language services firm. “If shoppers can’t read, they won’t buy,” he says. “A lot of people think ‘everybody understands English.’ But even if shoppers have a strong command of English, they still will not feel comfortable purchasing if the site is not in their native language.”

That’s one reason Stella & Dot in 2010 included translation and multi-country support capabilities in the request for proposal it put out for a new e-commerce platform, says Marshall Greer, the jewelry retailer’s senior director of technology. The majority of Stella & Dot’s sales come through in-home trunk shows run by its network of sales reps, which the company calls stylists, who then book orders on the web. Greer says all of the platforms the e-retailer considered supported multilingual content—hybris (now part of SAP SE) and ATG Dynamo (now part of Oracle Corp.) were in the running—but it ultimately went with Magento Inc. (a unit of eBay Inc.), because it liked how it could support multiple web stores for consumers and more B2B-type sites for stylists.

Stella & Dot developed its first international site, for the United Kingdom, in parallel with the development it did to move onto Magento, debuting the Magento-powered U.S. site in Sept. 2011 and the U.K. site a month later. A fully translated German site came online in 2012 and a fully translated French site in 2013, coinciding with Stella & Dot’s expansion into those countries.

Greer says the actual language translations were “the simplest of the technology challenges to solve.” Because of the way Magneto is structured, Stella & Dot could turn on free built-in modules, including one that handled basic translations, to do the heavy lifting.

Before content goes live on any of Stella & Dot’s multilingual sites—although each site is accessible through any other site by clicking on a flag icon, each site has its own URL, such as .com for the U.S. site and .de for the German site—in-country staff double-check the translations and customize them for their local markets. “We have found that they act as a sanity check on our translations, so they are not necessary literal translations,” Greer says.

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